A lot changed in the NHL standings during the past decade.
We’re running down the best players, teams, trades, lineups, trends and more from 2009-10 to 2019-20.
There was an expansion team added, another that relocated and another that was renamed. There were six divisions when the decade began, with the top eight teams in each conference advancing to the playoffs; by 2014, we were down to four divisions, with two wild cards in each conference filling in the blanks behind the top three finishers in each division.
What hasn’t changed from previous decades: There have been dominating Stanley Cup winners, worthy runners-up, stunning surprises … and, of course, teams that couldn’t hack it under pressure or were just abjectly terrible.
Here is where the best and worst of the decade currently stand, with the understanding that we’ve got one more season to go before they’re etched in stone.
The Kings’ first Stanley Cup champions from the 2011-12 season were a bit of an anomaly, what with winning the championship out of the No. 8 seed. But these Cup winners from the 2013-14 campaign were legit: dominant in possession (56.82 Corsi for percentage), the best defensive team in the NHL and with a roster that added Marian Gaborik and Jake Muzzin to the core of the previous Cup victors. Ask the Sharks how good this team could be when it got going (say, after three straight losses to start a series).
The balance between veterans (Zdeno Chara, Mark Recchi, Tim Thomas) and burgeoning young stars (Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin) was outstanding on this team. They were defensively brilliant, brutally antagonistic and could outwork anyone. Having Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci up the middle didn’t hurt, either.
The 2008-09 Penguins were the best of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby-era Stanley Cup champions. But between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 incarnations, we’ll give this one the nod. The 2016-17 champs had more points in the standings, but this 2015-16 team was first in the NHL in expected goals percentage (55.68), the second-best possession team in the league (52.72 Corsi for percentage) and better defensively (sixth in the NHL, as compared to 17th the next season). Oh, and it enjoyed a healthy Kris Letang and the “HBK Line” too.
The eventual decimation of this assemblage of talent is one of the true tragedies of the salary-cap era. Seriously, look at this roster: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Dave Bolland — all of them under 28 years of age. Brian Campbell was 30. Marian Hossa was 31. Sure, Antti Niemi is a bit of a weak link in goal, but the team in front of him made that an afterthought in winning the Stanley Cup.
The B’s couldn’t overcome the “Gloria”-playing St. Louis Blues and their rookie goalie, but Boston amassed 107 points in the regular season and was a defensive machine in front of Tuukka Rask in the playoffs.
Under coach Jon Cooper, the Lightning had 108 regular-season points and the most potent offense (262 goals) in the NHL. They won two Games 7 en route to the Final but ended up giving the Blackhawks the second Stanley Cup of their cap-era dynasty in a six-game loss.
The Sharks have had better teams, but none advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. This one did, fueled by a point-per-game season from Joe Thornton, 38 goals from Joe Pavelski and the second-best expected goals percentage (55.21 at 5-on-5) in the league. The best percentage that season? It was posted by the Penguins, who defeated the Sharks in six games.
The 2011 Stanley Cup Final will be remembered for many reasons (did we mention the riots?). But at its core, this was a series that featured a seemingly overmatched Boston team finding a way to take down a 117-point Presidents’ Trophy winner that led the league in goals scored and fewest goals against. It could be argued that this Canucks team was one of the best runners-up in modern NHL history, it was so stacked.
The Canadiens had an upset for the ages in 2010: Taking out the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals as a No. 8 seed, who at one point held a 3-1 lead in their series. (It would be the first of three seasons in which the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy and then lost in the playoffs.) The Canadiens weren’t done, eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in the second round, before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in the conference final. Thus began the intense (but brief) Carey Price vs. Jaroslav Halak fan wars.
The Kings barely qualified for the playoffs in 2012, finishing in the No. 8 seed, five points ahead of the Calgary Flames. What happened next made NHL history: conference playoff wins over the Canucks, Blues and Phoenix Coyotes, then the first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history against the New Jersey Devils. The Kings were the lowest seed to win the Cup in the modern era.
It was less plausible than anything that happened in “The Hangover”: An expansion team cobbled together over the previous summer finished with 109 points to win the Pacific Division, advanced through the Western Conference and played for the Stanley Cup in its inaugural season. It was a run sparked by the instant bond between the players and their city following the October 2017 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip; by the “us against the world” attitude of the expansion draft castoffs (and their coach); and, of course, by their secret weapon — The Vegas Flu draining their opponents.
The trajectory seemed familiar for Connor McDavid. Like Sidney Crosby before him, McDavid made the playoffs for the first time in his second season, as the Oilers advanced to Game 7 of the second round. In Year 3, Crosby went to the Stanley Cup Final. In Year 3, McDavid … watched his team drop 25 points in the standings, from 103 down to 78 points (36-40-6). Edmonton would miss the playoffs again the following season, and McDavid will play for his third coach in the 2019-20 season.
One year after losing in the Stanley Cup Final, the Canucks returned as a juggernaut: 111 points to win the Presidents’ Trophy and a team that looked every bit like one that could finally bring the franchise its first championship. Instead, they dropped two home games in the first round and lost to the No. 8-seeded Kings 4-1. We suppose the Canucks can take some solace in the fact that, for the third straight season, they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion.
With 62 wins, the Lightning tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most by a team in the regular season in NHL history. The Lightning’s points percentage of .780 was the second-highest rate in NHL history for an 82-game season behind those Wings (.799). The Lightning were only the second team in NHL history to post four different winning streaks of seven games or more in a single season, and their 3.96 goals per game was the highest in the NHL since 1996. Simply put, they were one of the greatest regular-season teams in the history of hockey.
But then they tied another record in the playoffs: fewest postseason wins. The Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the Lightning in a first-round sweep and in the process reminded everyone that even the surest of things are rendered uncertain in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The NHL tried. It changed the draft lottery rules ahead of Connor McDavid’s eligibility to go first overall in 2016, reducing the probability for tanking teams to secure the No. 1 pick. But that didn’t discourage a few teams in the 2014-15 campaign from clearing the decks and hitting the canvas in an effort to land McDavid. That included the Coyotes, who finished with a 24-50-8 record for a .341 points percentage. They had a goal differential of minus-102, traded away players such as Keith Yandle and Antoine Vermette, and were generally terrible. Alas, all this earned them was the No. 3 overall pick and center Dylan Strome … because some other team was just a bit worse.
No team in the salary-cap era had a more pathetic goal differential than these Sabres, at minus-113. At the time, no team had a lower points percentage (.329) or fewer wins (23). Their expected goals percentage was 39.26, and they managed only 37.5% of the shot attempts a 5-on-5. But the numbers show just a part of the story. You had to hear the rest: In the cheers of Sabres fans for goals scored against their team, most notably in a March 20, 2015, contest against the Coyotes in which Buffalo fans celebrated an overtime loss for the home team that helped cement its place in the basement. The Sabres players weren’t happy. Neither were the Hockey Gods: Edmonton won the lottery and Connor McDavid, while the Sabres drafted Jack Eichel second overall.
It began with the resignation of coach Patrick Roy just weeks before the season. It continued with a stretch in which the Avalanche won seven of 40 games. At the end of the season, the Avs had a minus-112 goal differential, a new cap-era low 22 wins and a humbling points percentage of .293, the ninth lowest in NHL history for an 82-game season. The bad news? They lost the draft lottery and picked fourth overall. The silver lining? That’s where they selected defenseman Cale Makar.